A New Center for African American Poetry, Poetics

Issue Date: 
March 14, 2016

Last year, poet Terrance Hayes gave a reading in South Carolina, the state where he grew up with books and art, became a standout basketball player, and where he made the decision to be a writer. After the reading, a young audience member asked the poet why he wrote so much about being Black. 

His response, he told a reporter for The New York Times, was “Because I am Black.” Hayes, winner of a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship, has won acclaim for how he boldly and creatively integrates multiple forms of his identity, history, and interests in his poetry. He interrogates masculinity, hip-hop, film, the blues, and myriad social issues, including race. 

That poets can connect with race and offer insights on social problems will come into the spotlight on March 20-21, when the University of Pittsburgh’s new center for African American Poetry and Poetics, or CAAPP, co-sponsors a two-day event aimed at linking poetry to a larger discussion on the role of humanities in society.

The event, “Poetry and Race in America: How the Humanities Engage with Social Problems,” will feature poetry readings and discussions with six of today’s most accomplished and groundbreaking Black poets. It is sponsored by CAAPP, the University of Pittsburgh Press, and the Provost’s Office, sponsor of the Year of the Humanities in the University.

With this effort, says Pitt English professor and poet Dawn Lundy Martin, a cofounder of the poetry center, “we wanted to place poetry in the middle of the discussions taking place about social justice in this country and show how it relates to race. And we see these events intersecting with the discussions on humanity.” 

Across the nation, says Lundy Martin, there are rising issues of intolerance, police brutality, violence, and other “troubling incidents happening—and we don’t want people to be numb to that.”

Part of what poets do, she says, is to ask people to look more closely at what is happening in the world, to see it through fresh lenses. “To do this helps to keep us human,” she says. “We would be less than human to let terrible things continue to happen and not inspire people to act.” 

Too often, says Peter Kracht, director of the University of Pittsburgh Press, when we think of social problems and the academy, we think of the work of sociologists, political scientists, or economists. “But the humanities, such as art, music, creative writing, and poetry, also engage with social issues, often very powerfully.” He says that “Poetry and Race in America” will showcase how African American poets, through their art, their lives, and their ideas, engage in the deep-rooted American problems surrounding race.

The six poets who will participate in the two-day event represent three generations of award-winning Black authors, each of whom has had at least one book published by the Pitt Poetry Series through the University of Pittsburgh Press.  

The poets are: Toi Derricotte, an award-winning author, professor emeritus at Pitt, and co-founder of Cave Canem; Ross Gay, the winner of the prestigious 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry award, which carries a $100,000 prize; Rickey Laurentiis, winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and an adjunct professor at Columbia University; Nate Marshall, winner of the 2014 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize; Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, a professor at Cornell University and a 2009 National Book Award finalist; and Afaa Michael Weaver, a 2014 winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and an English professor at Simmons College in Boston.

On Sunday, March 20, from 5-6:30 p.m., four of the poets will participate in a community interactive workshop at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. The event location is important, says Lundy Martin, because one of CAAPP’s central goals is to connect to the community—the people who live in the city and who may not have access to campus, but who love writing and poetry and would like to meet and work with these poets.

At 7 p.m. March 21, all of the poets will participate in readings and a moderated discussion at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium at Pitt. Both events are free to the public.

“It’s important to have all of the voices,” says Lundy Martin, “because each of the poets encounters race differently and in different times and will have different ways to express their encounters.”

About a year ago, Lundy Martin floated the idea of developing CAAPP during a brainstorming session with Pitt’s Don Bialostosky, chair of the English department, as well as Hayes, and English professor and poet Yona Harvey. The desire was to create a space devoted to the literary, scholarly, and cultural study and production of Black American and African diasporic poetry and poetics. Soon they were all collaborating and eventually established the center, the first of its kind in the nation. Lundy Martin and Hayes serve as center codirectors. 

While the center is open, the official launch will occur this fall with a week of activities. This month’s events are designed to intersect with the University’s Year of the Humanities—to broaden the discussion about the role of poetry and to preview the ambitious range of programming that the center wants to explore.